Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Great Houdini will mop up for you! (or not)

Here are two terrific full page trade ads for Houdini's Haldane of the Secret Service (1923). Unlike The Man From Beyond, Houdini turned distribution and promotion of this final Houdini Picture Corporation production over to F.B.O. (Film Booking Office) who ballyhooed the feature to theater owners with ads like these.

F.B.O. appears to have overpromised what exhibitors were getting in regards to "extraordinary posters--extraordinary exploitation." Several theater owners complained that the 3-sheet poster, which depicts an assortment of Houdini escapes, was misleading as none of the escapes appear in the film. Below is a typical reaction from a theater owner in Middleport, New York.

Now you are probably dying to see that 3-sheet poster, right!? Unfortunately, it's never been reproduced in any book to my knowledge. The only place I've been lucky enough to see it is in the ultra-rare original Haldane of the Secret Service pressbook owned by Kevin Connolly. And even there you can't see the entire poster.

But if one of these Haldane 3-sheets ever showed up at auction, you can bet it would MOP up!



  1. Throughout entertainment history, posters tended to exaggerate what the entertainers, or films were going to deliver. With only one escape in Haldane, the exhibitors were justified in feeling misled.

  2. So true, Leonard - it's astonishing to look back at movie posters (not to mention movie trailers) and see how deliberately misleading they could be (I actually see this more in films from the 1950s and 1960s than in earlier times, but it's always been a recurring problem). With Houdini, promoting a film without these specific escapes would have been a tough creative problem. There are some cool stunts in "Haldane" but aside from those, many key scenes from the movie would look anticlimactic compared with the live escapes he was famous for. How do you convey that this film is worth running to a movie theater to see? (That said, the ads above are very cool!)

  3. One thing that always gets me in Haldane is the scene in the warehouse when Houdini gets knocked out by the thugs and they throw him in the river. You can’t slap a pair of handcuff on him or tie him up!? It’s just a natural moment for a Houdini escape, and it doesn’t happen.

    But I believe Houdini was very deliberately trying to remove escapes from his HPC productions. These exhibitor reviews—I have bunch of them–are revelatory. Terror Island gets slammed for being too much like a serial and not a “special” (meaning a feature film). I think a lot of that is the capture/escape cliffhangers. So I think Houdini was trying avoid that structure and save the one big escape for the end. But capture and escape is what people want to see from Houdini! FBO understood that and promised it in the Haldane advertising, even though it wasn’t there.

  4. Yes, he was in a tough spot. One wonders how he ultimately would have re-branded himself, especially after the movie experience. In a big sense, he was like any prominent athlete or dancer who makes a big name for themselves through incredible physical prowess, but then must deal with diminishing capabilities due to age. But unlike most athletes and performers, he had an unmatched genius for self-promotion, so he undoubtedly would've found the right formula. The "three shows in one" was certainly a good start.

    1. I'd say he VERY successfully rebranded as a crusader against fraud mediums. It's said he was going to expand this into gamblers and cheats in general. I think he would have evolved in the way we saw James Randi evolve.

    2. Yes, indeed - I recall your post about his apparent intended plans to return to Europe to expose phony spiritualists there, so he certainly must've felt this was a viable draw on its own. I never knew about expanding into gamblers and cheats, but he could have had a field day with some of the casinos, etc., abroad. (And potentially much more dangerous threats from Mafia, card sharks, etc., than he ever got from spiritualists. Yikes!)

    3. You might want to check out this post in which I speculated about what Houdini might have done had he lived past '26.

    4. That's a great post and a fun re-read!

      I wonder if Harry was aware the F.B.O. overpromised the theater owners and looked the other way. Or was he not aware? It can't be both.

    5. John, thanks for sending me to that post - I haven't seen it before and I love it! So clever and well-written. What fun! I especially enjoyed your speculation that, in the 1930s, he would become THE master magician of his time, and also your mention of Orson Welles and a likely association with Houdini. Wow, Welles and Houdini together – THAT would have been an interesting friendship! Wonderful piece and thanks again!